Baruch College, CUNY
In part one of this essay, I briefly described the workings of the “Household’s Basket”, a policy by the Greek government designed to help financially struggling households with rising prices in food staples and home essentials. For its proponents the basket has become a marker of government success confirmed by EU statistical data. Here I focus on food imagery and public discourse around the household basket to discuss how the basket became a battleground for competing systems of value and a popular metaphor for the inability of neoliberalism to serve as an effective organizational system for Greek society.
This year the Household basket featured prominently in many of the carnivals that happen before Lent and are very common all over the country. The carnival of Polygyros, a small town in northern Greece, is such a festival with many visitors from neighboring towns and from Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city. The Household’s Basket was represented in the carnival parade with two floats; first, a giant plastic octopus coming out of the back of a pickup truck with its tentacles around a drawing of an empty basket with a single cucumber inside it titled “The Household’s basket”. The Octopus’ is identified as “Koulis”, which is an unflattering nickname for the Greek Prime minister[i]; the octopus’ tentacles are also spread around signs titled Market Pass and Fuel Pass (photo 1). The latter are government policies also designed to assist financially struggling households with small monthly remittances on food and fuel expenses[ii]. The octopus float was preceded by dancers who paraded with empty supermarket carts and empty baskets. A tractor truck followed towing a second float this one with a large shelf on it and packed with various products one may find in a supermarket store from food items to detergents. Those riding on the float were wearing food store employee garbs and handing out free groceries to the attendees (photo 2). Anthropological research has demonstrated that these festivals are intimately tied to a shared sense of local identity and have become, since at least the 1980s, a domain in which various actors and groups compete for cultural status and political influence at the local and national level (Cowan 1988). The floats summarize the main popular critiques against the basket; that it is a small handout in lieu of true government action, and not much help to struggling Greeks. The action by the float organizers to hand out free bags of groceries to the attendees, while singing and dancing and in costumed disguise is in sharp contrast with the imagery of empty baskets and greedy tentacles, and the climate of carnivalesque commensality and synesthetic effervescence enhances rather than masks community and critique[iii].
Faced with general elections at the end of May and under the pressure of persisting food inflation, the government included the Easter lamp in the Household’s Basket, promoting it as the best tool for financially struggling Greeks to participate in the public food rituals that take place during the period before Lent and culminate on Easter Sunday. Popular attention to and critique against the basket reached their zenith during Holy Week and focused on the price of the Easter lamp. This Easter season, the price of lamb sold at supermarket stores under the label “The Household’s Basket” remained about the same as the year before, a great success according to the government. However, this was not the case for the price of lamb sold in butcher stores which became unaffordable to large segments of the population. Many butchers in Greek urban centers, because of their proximity to the countryside, personally inspect, handpick, and slaughter the animals they sell at their stores. Besides quality, butcher stores offer personalized attention to their customers and Greeks prefer to purchase the Easter lamb from a butcher store they know and a butcher they trust, usually at a neighborhood setting. The household basket is not designed to support the customary practice of procuring the lamb from the neighborhood butcher store where personalized relations are involved in determining matters of quality and affordability. This has left it open to the critique that it is a tool designed to drive people to chain stores with cheaper prices but lower quality meat. A few days before Easter Sunday in a live TV discussion the government minister who conceived of and implemented the basket defended against this critique with the argument that the personalized attention and higher quality meat of butcher stores must necessarily always translate to higher prices, and that the basket is a solution for those who want lower prices. Of course, things had not always been like this: food staples like bread, as well as raw meats were not sold in chain stores in Greece before the deregulation of the food market; small neighborhood stores were protected from competition from large chain stores, but the personalized relationships of the neighborhood setting guaranteed quality as well as various degrees of affordability and unofficial systems of credit. Upon hearing the minister’s answer one of the discussion moderators protested that traditional butcher stores should not be turned into “boutique stores” (ε δεν θα τα κάνουμε και μπουτίκ τα χασάπικα)[iv]. This comment echoes the popular critique that the basket is another step in the transformation of previously affordable, long-standing popular practices into lifestyle choices available only to a select elite. A Greek woman in her 60s, summarized this notion by describing the labels on the shelves indicating Easter Household’s Basket products to me as signs indicating “where the poor [should] shop, [with] one set of shelves for the rich, and another for all the rest”.
Throughout the history of capitalist relations in Greece certain food items and food traditions were considered essential components of Greek life and were given a modicum of protection from profit-oriented markets. However, each of the three bailout agreements of the previous decade signed by successive Greek governments raised the VAT on food staples, lowered wages and pensions, and deregulated food markets, increasing this way food prices while at the same time avoiding raising taxes for the wealthy and big businesses in the name of productivity and competition. My colleague David Sutton and I have recently (2023) argued that in robust food cultures like Greece people find food very useful in critiquing neoliberalism and that food can serve as a daily reminder of the inability of the neoliberal policies to serve as organizational principles for Greek society. This belief crystalizes in the widespread notion that neoliberalism is anti-social (αντικοινωνικός), which is also indicated by the practice of naming “Social” Pantries and “Social Kitchens” the many food pantries and soup kitchens that appeared in the country during the previous decade[v]. The Household Basket and other small state subsidies have come to be known as coupons i.e., discount vouchers, not unlike those meant to be clipped off the Sunday newspaper inserts, albeit government issued. During this carnival season the Basket was depicted in the many festivals around the country as the antithesis of the horn of plenty, often displayed as carrying a single cucumber (a symbol of hardship in Greece), or hay, a symbol of deceit. The basket is not only associated with pauperization but specifically with the disembodiment of the previous nexus of social relationships that provided the framework for the production and consumption of food based on notions of commensality and affordability of established and locally produced food staples that were procured in smaller and socially intimate settings. The basket represents a present and future in which survival is contingent on token discounts to mostly imported products of dubious quality, to be purchased in the impersonal setting of the chain supermarket store.
Food is deeply embedded in kinship and exchange traditions, ritual practices, personal and community memory, as well as systems of morality. Its associative powers make it a particular useful instrument in challenging the hegemony of profit-oriented markets (Thompson 1971, Carrier 1998). I have discussed elsewhere the phenomenon of “yogurting” and the use of yogurt projectiles against politicians as a tool of political critique in the early days of the Greek crisis (Vournelis 2012). A closer look at the current critique around the Household’s Basket reveals it to be a terrain for opposing regimes of value. The Basket may or may not be good to eat from, but it is seems to be good to think about; owing its existence to the state’s refusal to organize the country’s economy in ways that do not privilege market profitability above everything else, it demonstrates the inability of neoliberalism to accommodate the kinds of sociability Greeks value most and at the same time raises the question to the minds of many: is this the best Neoliberalism can do for the majority of us?
Carrier, James. 1998. “Abstraction in Western Economic Practice.” In Virtualism: A New Political Economy, ed. James Carrier and Daniel Miller, 1–25. Oxford: Berg.
Thompson, E.P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50: 76–136.
Cowan, Jane. 1988. “Folk Truth: When the Scholar Comes to Carnival in a “Traditional” Community”. Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 6, Number 2, October 1988, pp. 245-260
David Sutton. 2016. “Let them eat stuffed peppers.” Gastronomica, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter 2016), pp. 8-17.
Vournelis, Leonidas. 2012. “Yoghurt Projectiles: Food, protest and identity in Greece (Co-authored with David Sutton).” In Anthropology News, Section News, 53:1, p.25 (March).
———, and David Sutton. 2012.“Food and the Greek Crisis.” In Anthropology News Section News, 53:3, p. 33 (April).
———, and David Sutton. 2023. “When Numbers Prosper People Suffer. Robust Food Cultures, Tacit Knowledge, and the Abstractions of Contemporary Neoliberal Culture”. In The Bloomsbury Handbook of Food and Material Cultures, Irini Michalache & Elizabeth Zanoni (eds). pp. 183-204. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
[i] The Prime Minister’s first name is Kyriakos; Koulis literally means “little/baby Kyriakos”
[ii] The maximum may not exceed 10% of the monthly costs of a household’s expenses and the vouchers are on a sliding scale but never more than €40/month
[iii] Giving away and sharing food as a political act has a long history in Greece; One of the best known and most important examples of food activism is the Potato Movement. In March of 2012, potato growers in Macedonia, Greece, brought their trucks to Thessaloniki (the country’s second largest city) carrying tons of potatoes that they proceeded to give out for free to people passing by, as a symbolic move against government policies favoring large-scale distributors, known in Greece as “Μiddlemen” (see Vournelis and Sutton 2012).
[v] Sutton examines associations between food and sociability, commensality, and community memory in his analysis of the highly successful all-volunteer social kitchen called “O Allos Anthropos” (see Sutton 2016)